The Skip-it leg-swing ball toy — the one where you put your foot through an ankle loop at one end of a two-foot cable and swing your leg in such a fashion that the ball at the other end scuds along the ground in a circle with your ankle as the center point — was the perfect toy for an only-child in the Bay Area in possession of an empty driveway and a lot of long afternoons. The ball, or in this case a hard-plastic lemon the size of a softball, made a skittering noise as it described a circle and my free leg jumped over it, filling the silence of another lonely day on a Cupertino street named after a long-forgotten cherry cultivar. In the downtime between skippings, the lemon and its loop hung on a nail in the garage, below a hula hoop I couldn’t manage and next to the second-greatest disappointment in my short life, a set of Romper Stompers. On an adjacent nail, trapezoidal racquet presses screwed tight with wingnuts arrested in their rusting by the Northern California climate, hung my mom and dad’s identical Dunlop tennis racquets — leftovers from some pre-me athletic lark.
I knew them as tennis racquets because they needed a name and that’s the name my mom assigned to them. They were simply sticks with nets and wingnuts and they were nothing to me until a backboard went up in the schoolyard across the street.
The doublewide backboard stood at an awkward angle in the center of a mostly-paved elementary school playground, blocking the view of the swing set from any school building, an invitation to push me off the swings that was gratefully accepted by several of the neighborhood bullies. The dark green wall, visible from my driveway through high chain-link fencing, stood like a monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this monolith imparted no knowledge. Not to me, anyway.
That’s not to say I didn’t hit a ball against the backboard. I did; like I say, I had a lot of time to kill. But it wasn’t tennis. I’d never seen anyone play; I had nothing to emulate. I’m not even sure I used a tennis ball. This wasn’t a sport; it was a pastime, just like the plastic lemon and, for about 75 seconds total, the Romper Stompers.
I needed the pastimes to fill a hole left by the greatest disappointment of my life thus far: Ballet. At six, with all the originality of a walking cliché, I’d put my hand up and declared, to all who would listen, “I want to be a ballerina!” I might as well have begged for a pony (I did beg for a pony). But I was all in; I lived in pink tights and black leotards and tight buns and little slippers and I was willing to put in the work. Our instructor had a cane she’d use to whack our legs if they weren’t doing what she wanted, and I heartily approved of her methods. I improved, moved up, improved some more. This is the way it’s supposed to go when you declare your intentions to the universe and you work hard at something.
But then I grew. And grew. I outgrew my old leotard and my legs got longer so the crotch of my tights sat too low and made my new leotard look funny. Longer legs equals heavier legs, and harder to lift. Everything on me was bigger and thicker, and I was just beginning to wonder whether I was up to the task of making all that look light as a feather, when my eyes were opened one day by the combination of my being a Big Galoot and the appearance of a new girl in class: Claire, a tiny little sprite whose bun sat lightly on her little head, whose tour jeté leap was higher and whose landing wasn’t such an event. In Claire’s effortless movements, I witnessed the kind of beauty I was straining to create. Her flying pipe-cleaner legs scrawled the writing on the proverbial wall, or rather the mirrors, for two humiliating weeks before she was whisked away to wherever better dancers go.
For three years, I’d been oblivious to my own shortcomings. Hard work hadn’t paid off. The universe didn’t care what I wanted. My juvenile mind came quickly to two wrong conclusions: 1) My inability to overcome being a Galoot meant that I had no athletic talent of any kind; and 2) Trying is for chumps. From here on out, I would avoid all competitive physical activities with a wink and a nod and a sarcastic knowingness to preempt any further disdain from unwelcome quarters.
I’m nothing if not tenacious, at least when it comes to not doing things. I stopped participating in organized physical pursuits. In the 70s and 80s, when the rest of America was falling in love with youth sports, I stepped aside and watched. I was deadly serious: My father was a former semi-professional soccer player, a great athlete, and, it so happened, a coach of U10 girls’ soccer. I was the age of the girls on his team; I did not play. By the time I reached high school, I had convinced myself and everyone around me that I was simply not cut out for sports.
After college, during which time I participated in no intramural athletics, I landed myself a Sporty Boyfriend. His main sport was tennis; he’d played in college and taught during the summers on Lake Tahoe. He started right in on indoctrinating me to the world of Sporty People, as he was a rilly, rilly sporty guy. We joined a co-ed soccer team, but I left at the end of the third practice, because co-ed soccer is awful unless you’re male. I went along to co-ed volleyball practices, and I gamely joined in until it became clear that to play volleyball is to endure extreme forearm pain.
We tried running together. The first and last time I ran an organized 8K, Seattle’s Nordstrom Beat The Bridge race, I was one of the few who didn’t, in fact, Beat It (Sporty B. certainly did, which leaves a stain on his character now that I’m thinking about it). When you don’t beat the University Bridge before it goes up, organizers stationed at the near side hand out visors that say, basically, Better Luck Next Time! which you must carry, wear, or throw away as you make your sheepish way to the finish. I wore mine because, hey, free hat, and also because if you wear your mediocrity voluntarily, no one can shame you.
Sporty Boyfriend was trying in reasonably good faith to make me the Sporty Girlfriend he wanted and deserved, but my heart just wasn’t in it. Any athletic foray inevitably lapsed into a defensive “I’m just no good at sports” giggle-and-shrug. Grad school parted us, and that was okay with everyone involved.
A decade later, my husband and I bought an old Seattle farmhouse. The couple who owned it before us had shoehorned a regulation tennis court into the only flat space on the lot. The court was regulation; the perimeter was not. Go out for a wide shot, and risk a concussion at the hands of the chain-link fence two feet from the doubles alley. Not that I cared.
I had a tennis court. In my yard. But 9-year-old me was persistent, if downright stupid; I tuned out tennis’s siren song, settling into the fallacy I’d built so long ago, without really remembering where it came from. I can count on two hands the number of times I played on the court, which was in reality a chalkboard and velodrome (velo being short for velocipede, which is a tricycle, which is what my kids were riding on our court).
Later, we moved down the street, closer to a tennis club, the one we’d joined for the gym and the social aspects. As all the other kids were in tennis classes, I signed mine up, too. One day, my 12-year-old son came home and announced that he was devoting his life to tennis. Apparently, epiphanies of this sort run in the family.
The trouble with my son’s plan was that he was terrible. “Maybe don’t quit your day job,” was the refrain from his coaches, including a very patient Jonathan Stark, former world №1 in doubles. That old voice came back, the one that said, “cut and run before they pity you,” but this was my child; he deserved the opportunity to try, as I had. The failure would come soon enough.
My son was up at 5 a.m. most days to practice before school. He signed up for every afternoon tennis clinic he could get his hands on. And he got better. A lot better. He moved up, improved, moved up again. The coaches began to take notice. “You’re my hero,” said one who’d written him off as useless. This is what’s supposed to happen to your children when they declare their intentions to the universe and they work hard.
He grew, and this time growth was a good thing; his ungainly frame made it easier for him to serve and harder for his opponents to get past him at the net. His younger sister joined him; with better natural ability, she improved, too, and more quickly. The shots coming off both their racquets were fast, smart, and beautiful.
Two years in, and now the whole family was spending weekends in depressing hotels in depressing towns with huge tennis complexes, developing preferences and loyalty points based on complimentary breakfast offerings. Showing up filled with hope on Friday afternoons, and driving home on Sundays, or, if it went particularly poorly, on Saturdays, dejected. We’d discuss the defeats, so many defeats, at the hands of a cadre of juniors-circuit opponents, stone-faced kids with better backhands. We’d gently suggest they might never go as far as the ones who’d started younger or were taller or whose tiger parents pushed them harder. They knew we were right, of course, but they’d be up at 5 a.m. the following Monday, skip half a day of school on Friday, and do it all again the next weekend anyway because, no matter the trajectory of their careers, every match, every lesson, every time they hit the ball, there was the possibility of a little bit of greatness.
They took what they needed from tennis and had a healthy philosophy about the rest. Faced with the same demons, my children had made better choices than I had, wringing joy from a problematic sport they loved to play. I began to see tennis, and sport in general, for what it was, not what it could have been for me or my kids.
Here was grace and beauty. Here was effort. Here was recital after recital, opportunity after opportunity to improve and create and express, for a lifetime if you let it. It was everything I’d sought as a child, laid out before me every time my children took to the court. At long last, I couldn’t hold out; I wanted to leap and spin and squat and stretch and hit that ball so hard it skids off the baseline and whacks the back curtain. To create a little bit of beauty, maybe, when the footwork and the groundstroke and the arc of the ball came together and worked. I was ready to win and lose and care again; I swallowed a lifetime of feigned indifference, and signed up for adult clinics.
My god, what a thing to do for an afternoon. To run around and swing your arms. To beat someone you love, or someone you hate, and get away with it. It’s magnificent. Tennis is everything to me now. It’s workout and pastime and outlet. It’s splendor and thrill and challenge. It’s our family’s thing. It’s our lemon jump-toy. It is not our Romper Stompers.
Where has this been all my life?